From time a film’s leading actress is called Royalty Hightower, you already know you’re about to watch something bossy. The Fits is Anna Rose Holmer’s directorial debut, and comes like her coronation as a queen of quirky, quality filmmaking. As much as it ducks and dodges definition, The Fits can be boxed into a category of what creative director Black Anubi$ calls dreality; a cinematic “trance that [puts] you in unconscious consciousness” as you transition out of childhood with the protagonist Toni. She’s an 11-year-old tomboy from ‘one of the poorest and most racially isolated’ hoods in Cincinnati, which is the bleak backdrop for this film about one little girl trying to work out who she is on her own terms.
She shares a name with the author and activist Toni Cade Bambara, who’s mum found her lying flat on the floor, just daydreaming one time when she was a yute, but didn’t disturb her. This luxury of just letting your imagination run free let Bambara become an important cultural figure, writing about black people and communities in America with the same “maturity and inner peace” that Anna Rose Holmer wrote The Fits with. I was surprised that she’s white because of how accurately her film captures this reality bare working class black kids exist in, where they gotta be independent from day cah moretime their parents and carers are too tired or busy to be there 24/7, or just outright neglectful.
Toni’s big bro Donté is her boxing partner and also takes pride in his sarft paternal affection for his sistren. Their bond is playful and beautiful and intimate in a way I recognise in my brothers’ love for their daughters and nieces. But a lickle tension comes when, in the community centre they train in and where most of the film is set, Toni starts drifting towards the all-girls majorette dance troupe who start claiming that “this is your family now”. It’s mad to see the introverted young Toni try decide who to be loyal to and how far she should or should not drift away from herself. She’s so cosy in her naturally masculine identity that you feel her discomfort when she tries doing up girly, whether by wearing earrings or painting her nails. I don’t think she has decided who to permanently be by the end of the film, but the title comes from the actual fits that the dance girls have, the cause of which is a central yet subtle mystery throughout the film. It’s a mythical madting really.
The Fits transfixes you in the physicality and spirituality of her movement out of the freedom of childhood, into a more performative, gendered adolescence. All the dancing is so liberating and celebratory, even to just watch, whether it’s Toni bussing a move on her ones or the Q-Kidz Dance Team doing bits altogether. It’s beautiful and braggadocious and silly sometimes. We see Toni doing everyday stuff like chatting shit with her friends in the locker room, or walking across the bridge and some grass to get home. There’s even a bit when she’s just breathing and the tranquillity just got to me. It’s so quotidian that at times the film feel like it’s going nowhere, which reminds me of Julie Dash’s beautiful film Daughters of the Dust which is really slow-paced and centred on the stories of a matriarchal black family. It reminds me of the languid sense of temporality you have as a child, which is important for adults to return to sometimes. Not everyday rush rush rush, somedays chill, yeah The Fits comes like a meditation, especially with its eerie, discordant soundscape.
It’s a very quiet film, fully embracing its status as a visual medium. It transforms the idea of children being seen and not heard from something oppressive to progressive, by consistently keeping the big screen at her lickle level. That constant child’s gaze makes you feel small when she does, alone when she does, powerful when she does. You smile when Toni triumphs at the end cah you literally been there, just one step behind her for the whole ting. It’s a bit emotional when, come the end of the film, Toni levitates outta the cocoon Donté coiled around her. She has a dramatically entrancing fit which marks her arrival at the trap door of girlhood, of which her experience will probably be more oscillatory than most. From her stark self-awareness, you already know that she runs and been running tings. At your big age, you’ll sit there wishing you could carry yourself and design your life the way young Toni done did.
The Fits is screening at Rio Cinema on Saturday 11th March, 4.15pm as part of our GiF weekender at Rio cinema, Dalston.